By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
It would not seem, what with banks of empty seats at RFK Stadium and a Monday Night Football game involving the burgundy and gold going on simultaneously, that the pressure of a pennant race would have visited the District last night. But here it was, in its ugliest form.
The New York Mets came to RFK with the National League's best record. Yet over the course of a hideous evening, they threw the ball into corners of the old yard where it doesn't belong, suffering an unsightly 12-4 loss to the Washington Nationals that featured four New York errors.
"They're human, too," said Nationals Manager Manny Acta, himself a former Mets coach. "They'll make errors."
Yet it is Acta who wanted to remind his club that, as humans, they could impact this race with some stick-in-the-spokes performances over the final two weeks. They play only the Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies, the two teams remaining in the National League East race, the rest of the way.
Thus, when they were trailing 4-0 in the early innings, Acta paced, his head down, pretending to walk the length of the dugout because he needed a cup of water from the cooler at the far end. What he wanted was to get across a message.
"Hey, just give it a fight," Acta said afterward, recounting his words. "Don't roll over for anybody. Let's play the game the right way."
From there, the Nationals did, and the Mets certainly did not. Washington overcame the four-run deficit and received exceptional relief work from old hands Luis Ayala, Saul Rivera and Jesus Colome and newcomers Jonathan Albaladejo and Arnie Mu¿oz. All of them pitched, none of them allowed a run, and the Mets seemed to strangle their bats tighter with each passing out.
To rub it in up in Gotham -- where a large dose of panic may be served with coffee and donuts this morning -- the lowest-scoring team in baseball matched its most prolific output at RFK ever. They had scored 12 runs once before, this Aug. 4 against St. Louis.
"Somebody had a good at-bat," said center fielder Nook Logan, who had a key bunt single in a three-hit night. "And it just carried over and carried over."
But as much as the Nationals put pressure on the Mets -- and Logan's bunt that reliever Scott Schoeneweis threw well down the right field line was the best example -- New York did not play the kind of baseball needed from a team trying to wrap up a division title. They were coming off the last of a three-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies, one in which they committed six errors. They certainly didn't clean things up in Washington.
"Anytime any team does that in the big leagues, it's kind of surprising," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's frustrating when you do it. We know how it feels."
But the Nationals haven't done it in this kind of situation, babying a lead in the division that was seven games last Tuesday. Now the Mets lead the Phillies by 2 1/2 games. The race is what Acta said he would use to "keep the guys interested." The finish line is in sight. The manager wants to make sure his players run through the tape.
"You know that you can make an impact on the race," Acta said. "That raises the level of play, the adrenaline and all that."
If indeed the Mets -- who have been in first place every day since May 16 -- crumble over these final two weeks, they might point to last night as a significant part of the meltdown. Not only did they take a 4-0 lead in the first four innings against ineffective Nationals starter Tim Redding -- including monstrous homers from Carlos Beltran and Shawn Green -- but they looked to be, by far, the more engaged team.
That, though, is when Acta delivered his little reminder. The opposing pitcher, Brian Lawrence, was starting in an emergency role. His ERA (6.31) and his stuff (mediocre) indicated he could be hit.
The Nationals hit him -- getting RBI singles from Ronnie Belliard and Robert Fick in the fourth, then tying the game, and driving Lawrence from it, on Brian Schneider's two-run double. Wily Mo Pe¿a singled in the go-ahead run in the fifth, and the potpourri of Mets' atrocities began in the sixth.
That's when David Wright committed the first Mets error. That's when Logan laid down his bunt -- intended to sacrifice runners to second and third -- and beat it out, then advanced to third when Schoeneweis threw wildly. That's also when Mets reliever Jorge Sosa fielded a ball hit by Pe¿a with the bases loaded. He turned to second, wanting to start a double play. Catcher Mike DiFelice, however, yelled for Sosa to come home. He did, but too late. Logan slid in. Everybody was safe. The mayhem was on.
Thus came the first signs: There are a dozen games left, and the Nationals are in a pennant race in each and every one.
"That's what it comes down to now," Church said. "All we're really playing for is stay out of the cellar and eliminate some teams. We're playing that spoiler role."